Moseying around near center court together 20 minutes before Ohio State-Michigan tipped off on Sunday, Kyle Young, Musa Jallow and Justice Sueing appeared to have begun feet-first transitions into Transformers. The three forwards, each wearing black, Ohio State-branded sweatsuits, all had on walking boots.
None of their absences came as a surprise. Two of them – Sueing, a transfer from California, and Jallow, who’s redshirting after multiple ankle surgeries – won’t play again this season. Young’s expected back at some point, though his high ankle sprain a week ago didn’t appear to be anything he could brush off to get back onto the court immediately.
Chris Holtmann couldn’t worry about them.
He knew that in order to beat Michigan, he’d have to rely on a limited rotation of eight healthy, eligible scholarship players. With only seven Buckeyes playing on Sunday, they got the job done, beating Michigan, 77-63, to sweep the season series.
“We've got a really good way about us with the tighter rotation,” Holtmann said. “I don't know if that's as sustainable right now as we'd like for it to be, but it's working right now.”
All five starters played at least 32 minutes, with both CJ Walker and Duane Washington Jr. staying on the court for a game-high 37 minutes. Only two players – E.J. Liddell (17 minutes) and Justin Ahrens (8 minutes) – came off the bench.
Such a rotation certainly wasn’t planned. DJ Carton’s leave of absence came suddenly in late January, Young’s latest injury happened only a week ago and Alonzo Gaffney just happened to get ill.
But as currently constructed, this roster’s pieces are clearly fitting together – even though the Buckeyes have to play undersized and need Young back to maximize their postseason results.
“You've just got to play extremely hard, got to win the 50-50 balls and believe in your team and everything will work out,” Washington said.
That happened on Sunday, and Washington led the way.
The second-year native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, got the better of the Wolverines, scoring a game-high 20 points. He remains a bit of a loose cannon at times, going 1-for-7 from inside the arc, but he hit 5-of-7 3-pointers.
“Some of it, you've got to live with it, and some of it he's got to keep (improving),” Holtmann said. “He just plays with outstanding confidence. He always has. And when he has it rolling like that, it really elevates us now.”
Washington’s spurts give Ohio State a microwave scorer who, for better or worse, seems to always feel as though he needs a heat check.
Early on Sunday, those points from Washington especially mattered because the Buckeyes couldn’t get Kaleb Wesson going offensively. The big man, always so important to their plans, got eaten up by down low by Jon Teske, who also played a significant role in Ohio State’s inability to drive into the paint and finish successfully. Wesson had only three first-half points, making 1-of-9 shots.
Yet Ohio State has learned how to manage with minimal production from its big man when it’s making shots from behind the arc and winning the energy battle. Both of those things happened in the first half. And in the latter 20 minutes, Wesson found his range, scoring 11 points and making all three 3-pointers he attempted.
“So much of what we do is predicated off of Kaleb's ability to stretch you from the middle of the floor, and I thought he did a really good job in the second half,” Holtmann said. “He struggled finishing through contact in the first half, but I thought he defended. I thought he stayed engaged. Kaleb's ability to stretch that (center), or at least present issues for that (center), allow CJ and other guys to make decisions. I thought CJ was great at attacking and finding seams.”
Walker’s ascent coincides with Carton’s leave of absence.
When Carton stepped away, there was warranted skepticism of what would happen at point guard. Could Walker really take such a heavy role? He had struggled at times to run the offense and pick his shots early in the season. Yet over the past month, his efficiency has been on display, including on Sunday when he had 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
In the past 10 games, Walker has averaged 9.6 points per game with 45 total assists and only 13 turnovers. Ohio State has taken his lead to win eight of those 10 games.
“Playing hard can win a lot of games, and I feel like that kind of carried over to everybody else, whether it was talking or actions,” Walker said. “So I feel like that kind of took over and everybody kind of followed it with Dre, Kaleb and KY, and I feel like it just carried over to everybody and it's working itself out.”
Andre Wesson scored 14 points on Sunday, creating a few opportunities for himself, and E.J. Liddell added four points and four rebounds. At one point in the first half, Liddell had three Young-esque possessions in a row, fighting for a loose ball, tapping an offensive rebound to Walker then grabbing an offensive board for himself.
Defensively, Ohio State held Michigan to 44.6 percent shooting from the field and 26.9 percent from behind the 3-point arc. In the final 3:50 as the Buckeyes secured the win, the Wolverines only made two shots from the field, one of which was an ultimately meaningless 3-pointer from Franz Wagner with one second remaining.
“Obviously we need Kyle back,” Holtmann said. “We're not a better team without Kyle. I'd like to have more depth than what we did.”
All of that is true.
Yet it’s also clear that what Ohio State has right now is working. In fact, it’s a bit reminiscent of what happened early in the season when the Buckeyes rose all the way up to No. 2 in the Associated Press top-25 poll before losing six of seven games in late December and January to fall to unranked.
Even Holtmann, sometimes unwilling to overly tout his team’s play, admitted he sees similarities between how his team’s playing right now with how everything flowed early in the season as it rose up the rankings.
“We realize plenty of people wrote us off when we were 2-6 (in the Big Ten), had people kind of making fun of us, putting all their sarcastic tweets out there,” Holtmann said. “I've got them all saved. All of them. We get it. I think we had to close ranks and find a way to try to come together and perform better and own why we were struggling and what we were doing to struggle – coaches, players, own it. Again, that goes back to the guys in the locker room, particularly our captains. They've owned the fact that we have to perform better.”
Down the stretch of Sunday's game, Holtmann rode the players he remembers some outside the locker room burying during the doldrums of January, and they rewarded him.
Holtmann made his final lineup adjustment with 7:42 remaining, subbing Andre Wesson in for Liddell. The rest of the way, he went with Walker, Muhammad, Washington and the Wesson brothers. That group of five proceeded to end the game on a 25-11 run.
“I'm not trying to sound cocky or anything, but I would say our team is kind of built for the moment,” Walker said. “We're built for this. Our coaches believe in all of us. We feel like we can play at any level with any team. So no matter if we have all 14 or (eight) that we have now, everybody's kind of built for that moment just to take advantage of it and play as hard as possible. We just kind of want to live with the results as long as you play hard and things like that.”